Plague and Drought in Joel

The name Joel can be loosely translated to mean “YHWH is God.” The Book of Joel is one of the shorter books of the “minor prophets” (named for their length, not their significance). In it, Joel preaches the “word of the Lord” to the “old men” and “inhabitants of the land” -it is an account that is applicable to “your own time” or “even your father’s time” and should be retold so our children will tell their children. Joel intends to present a prophecy that is applicable to all peoples in all times.

Joel gives an account of the locust devastation -the barley and wheat are gone, the vineyards have dried up, along with the fig, pomegranate, apple, and other fruit trees. Fire destroys the wilderness and all the rivers have dried up in drought. He calls upon the “old men” to lament and give an offering to the Lord.

Joel is concerned with a plague and a drought that has stricken the land of Israel, though some later Jewish scholars have suggested the locust plague is a mere metaphor for the enemies of Israel, rather than an actual pestilence. The answer Joel provides to Israel is to turn back to God and repent and he forecasts a day of reckoning from God. The King James Version of the text differs from the Tanakh version, as it is divided into three chapters while the Tanakh is divided into four chapters. The historical context is unknown. Here are a couple of notable passage from the book of Joel:

“O Lord, to thee will I cry: for the fire hath
devoured the pastures of the wilderness, and
the flame hath burned all the trees of the field.
The beasts of the field also cry unto thee:
for the rivers of waters are dried up, and the
fire hath devoured the pastures of the wilderness”

“A fire devoureth before them; and behind
them a flame burneth: the land is as the garden
of Eden before them, and behind them a desolate
wilderness: yea, and nothing shall escape them”

Michelangelo’s painting of Joel from his Sistine Chapel ceiling (1508-1512)

For this reading I used the King James Version.

Notes on Amos

Amos lived during the same epoch as Hosea, as both prophets were active in the Northern Kingdom of Israel (“Samaria”), during the reign of Jeroboam II, though Amos is not explicitly described as a prophet in the text (neither he nor his father are described as prophets). He is believed to have been an older contemporary of both Hosea and Isaiah. The book of Amos is the third book of the “Minor Prophets” in the Tanakh. Amos is one of the shortest books in the Bible, along with other “Minor Prophets”, such as Joel.

Amos is described as a “herdsman” and a “a gatherer of sycamore fruit” (7:14) from Tekoa, a rural town south of Jerusalem. He begins by condemning the surrounding nations of Israel, and then he turns to forecasting the doom of Judah and Israel for disregarding the laws of God. In particular, he condemns Samaria for neglecting its care for the poor. He echoes the images of harlots and a divorce expressed in Hosea. In the end of the text, a latter interpolation is included prophesying hope and redemption for Israel, wherein not every Israelite will be slaughtered, and vineyards destroyed, and olive trees cut down and so on. The fault of Israel lies in Israel’s turning away from the laws of God, hence why the Northern Kingdom will fall first, and Jerusalem will eventually be sacked by the Babylonians, and the Jews enslaved.

An ancient Hebrew hymn can be found in certain verses of Amos, in chapters 4, 5, 8, and 9. Reading the latter writings of the Tanakh reminds me of the “fire and brimstone” sermons found in early American theology (a la Jonathan Edwards’s Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God) due to their apocalyptic and often explosive moralizing about the downfall of their nation.

For this reading I used the King James Version.

Infidelity in Hosea

Hosea is the first book of the twelve minor prophets in the Hebrew Bible. It is one of the shorter books of the Bible. The text suggests that Hosea was an active prophet during the reign of Jeroboim II, during the fall of the Northern Kingdom of Israel (“Samaria”), which happened around 721 BC. The Talmud praises Hosea for being one of the greatest prophets of his day, despite being a prophet of doom. The name Hosea can mean “salvation” or “He saves”. It was the original name of Joshua, until Moses gave him the longer name of yehoshua, meaning “YHWH is salvation.”

At the outset Hosea is called by God to take a wife, Gomer, who God foretells will be unfaithful, to serve as an example to Israel. She gives birth to a son, Jezreel, as well as a daughter, Lohruhama, and another son, Loammi. This framing of the text is important as it serves as a metaphor for the relationship between the Lord and Israel. In allowing the children to be conceived, God blames the pitfalls of the kingdom of Israel on the Northern Kingdom, and He foretells of their downfall while He also chooses to favor the Southern Kingdom of Judah.

Israel is likened to a whore, or a cheating wife, for putting faith in Canaanite gods, particularly Baal and Ashur. Additionally, Israel (the Northern Kingdom, sometimes referred to as “Samaria”), along with Ephraim and Judah, all have sinned and produced strange children, bringing upon their own judgment. Hosea writes of a kind of divorce (Chapter 2) that comes about between God and Israel, though they may also be in reference to his immoral wife, Gomer. The fault of Israel is their own, according to the prophets.

The book of Hosea is a book about infidelity – both an unfaithful wife, as well as an unfaithful nation. When a nation turns its back on its origins, how long can it last? For Hosea, the punishment of Israel is only temporary, as God will again unite the nation of Israel and return to His people. He sees redemption and forgiveness further down the road, as notably, the people of Israel have the freedom to choose whether or not to follow the Lord. God is portrayed as merciful at the end of the book, as He longs to reunite with His unfaithful mistress, Israel. God is like a doctor who heals, a gardener who tends to his vineyard, or a shepherd who cares for his flock -all gentle metaphors that semm on initial passing vastly different from the image of God in the early Torah. Hosea prophecies of the downfall of Israel, much like Isaiah a full generation later, although Hosea still sees opportunity for Israel to repent.

For this reading I used the King James Version.

Sorrow, Anger, and Hope in Lamentations

The book of Lamentations, sometimes called the “Lamentations of Jeremiah”, is one of the shorter and more deeply sorrowful books of the Hebrew Bible. From the text, we imagine a lonely, existential man crying out to deaf-heaven from the depths. The book moves from a lament of the city as it weeps in despair (Chapter 1), to a condemnation of the city’s transgressions against God (Chapter 2), to a reversal of hope through God’s mercy (Chapter 3), to again condemning the sins of the city (Chapter 4), to finally ending with some hope of redemption in the future from God. The five poems of Jeremiah fluctuate between sorrow, anger, a rebuke of the city, and a lengthy apologia from Jeremiah, decrying his own sins.

Chapter three provides much fruit for consideration. Jeremiah (we shall assume he is the author) begins by noting the wrath of God and accusing Him of turning against Israel: “He hath inclosed my ways with hewn and stone, he hath made my ways crooked” (3:9). In fact, Jeremiah says that he lamented so deeply, that his strength and hope in the Lord had perished. However, at 3:20, Jeremiah turns away from despair. Why does he do so? As a result of his recollection (Platonic knowledge), and this remembrance ultimately brings humility to him. He praises waiting, hoping, and trusting in the Lord. He praises God for His mercy, a nod at the future theology found more in Christianity than in early Hebrew prophets.

Appropriately, the Hebrew title of the text is “Eykhoh” meaning “How”, alluding to the first word of the scroll. Interestingly enough, the Hebrew poems corresponding to chapters 1,2, and 4 are all written as acrostics with 22 lines, with the first letter of each line corresponding to the order of the Hebrew alphabet. The text is written to reflect Jeremiah’s deep despair at the destruction of the city and the temple of Jerusalem in Judah by the Babylonians, a time in which there was a conspiracy against Jeremiah’s life, he was imprisoned, and ultimately thousands of Jews were carried off as slaves throughout the Babylonian empire.

The true beauty in reading the Hebrew Bible is the complex expression of the full range of human life: we find a rich exploration of human nature in Genesis, politics in Exodus and Kings, celebrations in Psalms, wisdom in Proverbs, lust in Song of Songs, despair in Ecclesiastes and Lamentations, dark prophecy in Isaiah and Jeremiah and Daniel, fairy tales and redemption in Jonah and Ruth and Job. The literature of the Bible is a garden of ceaseless harvest.

Here are some of my favorite passages, taken from the King James Version of Lamentations:

“How doth the city sit solitary, that was full
of people! How is she become as a widow!
She that was great among the nations, and
princess among provinces, how is she become tributary!”

“Mine enemies chased me sore, like a bird,
with cause.
They have cut off my life in the dungeon,
and cast a stone upon me.
Waters flowed over mine head; then I said,
I am cut off”

“I called upon thy name, O Lord, out of the
low dungeon.
Thou has heard my voice: hide not thine
ear at my breathing, at my cry”

“Our fathers have sinned, and are not; and
we have borne their iniquities”

For this reading I used the King James Version.

Thoughts on Jeremiah

As announced at the outset, the writings of Jeremiah take place during the “eleventh year of Zedekiah”, the ruler put in place by Babylon after Babylon conquered Jerusalem. In reading the text of Jeremiah we imagine an elderly prophet, Jeremiah, dictating his life and prophecy to a Jewish scribe. During the first part of the book in the reign of King Josiah of Judah the story is told by Jeremiah, and in the second part the latter story of Jeremiah is told as he is imprisoned and as dark prophecy is foreseen for Israel. Some have ascribed the second part of the book to Baruch, the scribe who announces himself in Jeremiah. In the King James Version here is how Jeremiah introduced himself:

“Then the word of the Lord came unto me, saying,
Before I formed thee in the belly, I knew thee;
And before thou camest forth out of the womb I sanctified thee,
and I ordained thee a prophet unto nations.” (1:4-5).

Rembrandt’s masterful 1630 painting of Jeremiah Lamenting the Destruction of Jerusalem

The Lord speaks to Jeremiah proclaiming how he will bring to justice the fallen northern kingdom of Israel/Judah. He laments the perfect vine that he planted in Israel that is now polluted by the transgressions of the northern kingdom, and he vows to bring them to hell under the rulership of the southern kingdom of Judah. However, even the kingdom of Judah has played the “harlot” and has disobeyed God.

The book of Jeremiah reads like a series of metaphors: the lion coming from his thicket, watchers from a far country, the harvest is past, den of dragons, pen of iron, fenced brasen wall, two baskets of figs, and so on. Much of the book reads with an apocalyptic tone, not unlike Isaiah, as Jeremiah lived through the destruction of Jerusalem. He discusses his testimony: his preachings that Israel has lost its way with the Lord, and as a result Jeremiah is abused and imprisoned (there is a conspiracy against him) and he foretells Zedekiah’s downfall. He writes letters to the exiles in Babylon encouraging them to remain true to the Lord.

How have the Israelites transgressed? They have lifted up unjust leaders, engaged in treacherous dealings, and they have a rebellious heart, false prophets, and so on. In the end there is hope for Israel, according to Jeremiah, as the Davidian line is preserved.

Jeremiah has sometimes been called the “weeping prophet” and it is for his namesake that we derive the word “jeremiad” for a mournful lamentation. Tradition has it that Jeremiah was the author of the books of Kings, Jeremiah, and Lamentations, with the help of his scribe Baruch.

Michelango’s depiction of a somber Jeremiah (between 1508-1512) at the Sistine Chapel

For this reading I used the King James Version.

Notes on the Context of the Tanakh

The ancient national identity of Israel arose as a separate and unique group from the Canaanite and Philistine tribes of the ancient Levant (French meaning “rising” coming from the Arabic phrase for the ‘rising sun in the east’). Today the Levant roughly comprises Cyprus, Jordan, Israel, Syria, Palestine (the territories), and Lebanon.

In the late Bronze Age, Canaan began to slowly decline, as it was overcome by the Egyptians, Philistines, Phoenicians, and Israelites. The tribal Israelites were unique in their practices of circumcision, lack of artistic displays of YHWH, and lack of pork consumption.

Leaving aside any account of the origins of the cosmos, the Israelite story begins Biblically with Abram, later called Abraham. Born and raised in the town of Ur of the Chaldees (likely a city in present-day Turkey or Iraq), he is called by God to take his barren wife Sarah (Sarai), his cousin Lot, and the rest of his family and travel to the land of Canaan. They travel south and stop in Haran (in modern-day Turkey) and remain there until Abraham turns age 75 and then they continue southward to the land of Canaan where he dwells in Shechem, a town in central Canaan. Due to a famine, they travel further on to Egypt, but are forced to return to the Shechem area. Then, Abraham and Lot have a falling out due to territory and property concerns -Lot heads east to the Jordan plains where the fields are well-watered, while Abraham takes his flock south to Hebron (located just south of Jerusalem today). However the Elamites (an early Iranian civilization whose capital was Susa) conquer Sodom and the surrounding region, including Lot’s pastures. Abraham then raises an army to free Lot and reclaim Sodom which wins him great fame in the region. He sleeps with his wife’s servant, Hagar, and gives birth to Ishmael, and miraculously his aged, barren wife Sarah gives birth to Isaac.

Through his son Isaac, and on to Joseph, a detour happens wherein Joseph is sold into slavery in Egypt. He miraculously rises to become Pharaoh and the house of Isaac moves to Egypt, however future generations of Hebrews again become enslaved in Egypt until Moses and Aaron lead a dramatic flight of the Hebrew slaves from Egypt with the help of God. However, due to the their disobedience of God, the Hebrews are doomed to wander in the desert until God finally delivers laws to them through Moses, and Moses then delivers the Hebrews from the desert. As Moses dies and Joshua becomes the ruling warlord, the Hebrews conquer various cities, including Jericho. They return to the Shechem region (Abraham’s original homeland) where Joshua dies.

After the death of Joshua a series of Judges are brought forward to rule Israel, but as evidenced by the outcry of the Israelite people in the books of Samuel, the people demand to have a king like all other nations. Thus Saul, the tallest man, is chosen as King though he ultimately proves fruitless and a shepherd-boy named David is brought forward to join the King’s court as a harpist. He is called to the front in a war with the Philistines and he defeats Goliath, the most fearsome Philistine warrior. David is then crowned King against Saul, but this sparks a civil war, ultimately concluding in David’s kingship and the execution of Saul’s remaining descendants. Following David, comes a disputed reign between his two sons, Adonijah or Solomon, with Solomon being crowned King, and under his reign Israel flourishes and the Temple is built in 957 BC.

However, after Solomon’s reign the worship of other gods starts to happen in Israel and the kingdom ultimately tears itself apart, with the royal line of David continuing in the South under Solomon’s son Rehoboam, now as the kingdom of Judah (with only the tribes of Judah and Benjamin), while in the north Israel experiences a successive series of kings (they refuse to accept the rulership of Rehoboam) until the northern kingdom is ultimately conquered by the Assyrians. Rehoboam draws the ire of some for paying tributes to Egypt from the treasure of the temple, thus making Judah a vassal state of Egypt. In the following years, an internal struggle persists between kings either allowing for the worship of other gods or not: Hezekiah the 14th king of Judah institutes religious reforms forbidding the images of all other gods, but the policy is reversed by king Manasseh, only for it to be reinstated under king Josiah, but it is too late and God does not protect Jerusalem as the Babylonians under King Nebuchadnezzar invade and sack the temple of Jerusalem in 587 BC. The Israelites are then led away into captivity in Babylon and dispersed throughout the empire.

Nebuchadnezzar puts Zedekiah in charge of Israel, and despite the noted Israeli prophet Jeremiah’s opposition, Zedekiah organizes a rebellion against Babylon that causes a second Babylonian invasion and the destruction of the temple. Many Jews flee to nearby cities and Zedekiah’s sons are all murdered and Zedekiah is brought to Babylon. This ends the kingdom of Judah until the Persian army (Achaemenid empire) under Cyrus conquers Babylon in 539 BC and allows all the exiles to return to Jerusalem and rebuild their temple, which is eventually completed while Darius is emperor of Persia. During this period of Persian rule, the Jews begin to form a common identity and scriptural canonicity. For example, this epoch includes the major Jewish prophets: the Book of Isaiah (Isaiah ben Amoz) emerges from the period of Babylonian captivity in its dramatic praise of the coming of Cyrus, Jeremiah’s prophecy during the revolts against Babylon, and Ezekiel’s prophetic visions.

When Alexander the Great conquers Persia, Israel comes under the rule of the Hellenistic empire, but shortly thereafter Alexander passes away leaving no heirs and so his generals divide up the empire. Israel falls under the rule of the Syrian Seleucid empire. However the introduction of Greek cults into Israel sparks a revolution that overthrows the Seleucids as occupiers, and suddenly Israel becomes an independent kingdom again.

In 63 BC Jerusalem is conquered yet again, this time by Rome, under General Pompey. Now, Herod is appointed the ‘King of the Jews’ and there is a great deal of civil strife leading to the Jewish-Roman Wars, as Judea is oppressed with taxation and punishments which are particularly harsh and cruel, including a special tax upon Jews. During this time, the temple is again destroyed, this time by Rome. Additionally, Emperor Hadrian of Rome renames the region Syria Palaestina in an attempt to remove all reference to Jewish culture. In the province at the time are the Saduccee and Pharisee sects of Judaism, as well as minority populations of Samaritans and Greco-Roman Hellenes. It was amidst this revolutionary climate that emerged the life of Jesus and other rebellious and religious figures of the time, such as John the Baptist. The execution of the former sparks a new Jewish sect, focused on spreading “good news” (or “gospels”) that claim a fulfillment of messianic prophecies made during the days of the Babylonian exile.

Not long after the rebellious eruptions took place in Judea, the Roman empire experiences a long and steady decline and Christianity spreads rapidly throughout the region. Upon the collapse of Rome, Palaestina falls under the rule of the Byzantines, and then Jerusalem is conquered by the repressive Sassanid Persian empire, followed by a series of Arabic caliphates who conquer and rule Jerusalem from Medina, Damascus, and finally Baghdad. During this time a group of Jewish scribes called the Masoretes, establishes the definitive Masoretic text of the Hebrew Bible.

In 1099, the first Crusade occurs, wherein Christians establish a Catholic kingdom in Jerusalem and kill or enslave many Jews and Muslims, until Saladin peacefully conquers Jerusalem under the Ayyubid empire. Note: Saladin’s court physician was Maimonides, a persecuted refugee from Cordoba, Spain. From there, Israel becomes the battlefront for the continuing Crusades, as well as warring empires, the Mongols and the Egyptian Mamluks. During this period in Europe, Jews are widely persecuted and blamed for the historical injustices committed on Jesus Christ, but they are also blamed for the failures of the Crusades. The Jews are banished from many Western European countries, like France, England, and Spain. Thus the Jewish diaspora continues and many Jews relocate to Eastern Europe, such as Poland, or the Ottoman Empire, or North Africa, and into assigned ghettos in the Papal states.

Then, in the 19th and 20th centuries the birth of Zionism becomes a phenomenon as many Jews relocate back to Jerusalem and the surrounding region, despite revolts from the surrounding Arabs. This process is followed by the atrocities like the Holocaust in the Second World War. In 1948, with the decline of the old empires, Britain mandates a state for the Palestinian region, and a war is fought for Israeli independence. Since that time there have been near constant military conflicts between the nation-state of Israel and its surrounding Arabic nations and territories.